Terms of engagement: Asheville mayoral candidates make their case

Who will it be?: (left to right) Former city staffer John Miall, Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer and community activist Martin Ramsey are vying to be Asheville’s next mayor. However, after the primary, only the top two vote-getters will advance. (Photo by Max Cooper)

Whether it’s four years on Asheville City Council, 30 years as a city official or eight years working in a downtown restaurant, all three candidates for mayor tout experience, though they define it in vastly different terms.

“It’s the job of a good leader to engage the community and work effectively with fellow Council members as well as other entities in the community,” current Vice Mayor Esther Manheimer declares.

“If you look at every element of the risk management profession, they are all required at City Hall,” former Risk Management Director John Miall points out.

“My concerns as a working person who makes less than $30,000 a year, and who’s been off and on health care, are not the same as members of the country clubs around here,” community activist Martin Ramsey explains.

The three contenders laid out their respective visions for the city in interviews with this reporter. The Oct. 8 primary will cut one of them from the race, and the Nov. 5 general election will determine which of the remaining two becomes Asheville’s next mayor. (Current Mayor Terry Bellamy declined to seek a third term, choosing to run for Congress next year instead.)

The money hunt

All three candidates have been meeting and greeting via public forums, Facebook posts and campaign mailers, and they’ve all stressed the importance of beefing up the local economy and creating jobs.

According to a 2012 report from the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, tourism is the area’s third-largest employment sector, and it’s not slowing down. Since 2009, the local tourism industry has added more than 280 jobs annually, the report found — a 5.7 percent increase over three years.

But Manheimer, an attorney with The Van Winkle Law Firm, says the city needs to diversify its economy, perhaps by attracting the tech industry. “I don’t think Asheville’s citizenry is interested in being the next Gatlinburg,” she observes.

“Four hundred jobs that pay minimum wage and have no benefits isn’t the next employer we want in Asheville,” says Manheimer, citing a policy approved by City Council in March of 2011 that ties employers’ eligibility for economic development incentives to their paying workers a living wage. “We need high-quality, good-paying jobs. You want to diversify your job base, otherwise you’re too susceptible to any one entity closing up and leaving town. You don’t want to make yourself vulnerable or let that one entity have that much leverage over your community.”

Miall, meanwhile, sees opportunity in Asheville’s historic and growing health-and-wellness sector.

“We have every resource any community in this country could ever want to have to become a health-and-wellness mecca,” declares Miall, a health care consultant. “We have a world-class hospital system. We have some of the best, brightest physicians in the country, and more every day because of MAHEC. UNC-Asheville landed the new School of Pharmacy. In addition to the physicians and the schools and the hospital resource, Asheville is very cutting-edge right now with greenways.”

According to a 2012 Chamber of Commerce report, Mission Health System employs more than 3,000 people — making it one of the Asheville metro’s two biggest employers, along with the Buncombe County Schools.

Ramsey, on the other hand, points to the city of Cleveland, which partnered with various local core institutions in 2008 to create the Evergreen Cooperative Initiative in Ohio. Working in economically depressed urban neighborhoods, the nonprofit community development corporation seeks to build the local economy from the ground up by launching a network of employee-owned green businesses, including a green laundry service, a solar firm and the nation’s largest urban greenhouse. That kind of “economic democracy,” says Ramsey, could work here as well.

“We’re not having a serious discussion about long-term structural poverty and how our dominant form of economy is actually perpetuating that problem,” he maintains. “One of the problems is we don’t have a groundswell of working people pushing for their interests.”

To get individuals involved “beyond the voting booth,” Ramsey advocates participatory budgeting, in which community members would directly decide how to spend a portion of the city’s money. Referencing his own experience at the Early Girl Eatery, Ramsey believes workers in a business need to be just as involved in policy discussions as the owners.

And speaking of money, both he and Miall say there wasn’t enough discussion back in June when City Council allocated $2 million for renovations and repairs to the Asheville Art Museum.

“There are, quite seriously, more questions about that than there are answers,” Miall maintains. “And in my opinion, you don’t bring things to a vote or a course of action until all of those questions are nailed down.”

Documents the museum submitted to Council predict that the planned expansion would boost the number of museum visits from 55,743 (in fiscal year 2008) to 110,000 within a year of completing the expansion. Manheimer defends Council’s decision, saying the economic benefits would justify the cost, and stressing that the museum won’t get the city’s money unless it raises the bulk of what it needs privately.

Who’s in charge?

At a Sept. 19 League of Women Voters forum, all three candidates were asked to state, yes or no, whether they have confidence in Police Chief William Anderson, who’s been a subject of controversy. Their answers, given without hesitation, provide another window into the differences among them.

“No,” said Miall.

“He does not have my full confidence,” said Ramsey, who has called for an independent civilian police review board.

“I’m standing by the chief of police at this point,” said Manheimer.

Miall told Xpress that he’s concerned about the department’s many vacancies and its ability to retain employees. (As of July, there were 24 vacancies, 14 of them officer positions, according to Police Department figures.) “I have heard rumors that we have law enforcement officers leaving for other cities and for the county Sheriff’s Department,” he elaborated, adding, “We need to find out why and deal with it.”

Asked for specifics on how he would address the issue, Miall said he’d need more information before making that decision.

On another front, Miall maintains that Council’s approval of a 7 percent tax increase — the first one in more than 10 years — supports his contention that this community needs to move in a new direction as quickly as possible.

“How do you take people who are so discouraged and so depressed over our economic situation, our job situation, our tax rates increasing?” he asks, declaring, “We need a mayor who will create a legend in Asheville.”

Manheimer counters that both city staff and Council members have many worthwhile current projects that she’d like to build on if elected. She’s particularly proud of the recently created Multimodal Transportation Commission, which will overlay various master plans, from greenways to transit, in thinking strategically about how residents can get from point A to point B, whether by walking, biking or driving.

Ultimately, says Manheimer, she wants to be both an inclusive and a process-oriented mayor. “Someone’s got to step up and bring order to a lot of great ideas that might be swirling around and may just need to be snagged out of the sky,” she asserts. “We have a shared sense of where we want to be, but we have differences of opinion about how to get there.”

For his part, Ramsey feels that taking a closer look at how government decisions get made is a first step toward resolving some of this city’s fundamental issues.

“It’s my opinion that Asheville will grow, and the question to me as a young person who’s making a life here is, who’s it going to grow for? Who gets to benefit from it, and whose voices don’t get heard in the process?” the 31-year-old said during his closing statements at the League forum. “I would like to be part of a movement for an egalitarian future where everyone gets to matter.”

Caitlin Byrd can be reached at cbyrd@mountainx.com or 251-1333, ext. 140.

Cast your vote: Early voting for the primary runs through Saturday, Oct. 5. The primary election will be held Tuesday, Oct. 8. The top two vote-getters advance to the municipal election on Tuesday, Nov. 5. Early voting for the municipal election begins Oct. 17 and runs through Nov. 2.


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